El Greco, Myth and Reality, by Juan José Morales
While the movie El Greco was reaching its conclusion on the evening of 27 November, I was wondering why Spain has had always this great and strange power of fascination. Also the painter El Greco, sure enough, was pulled by that compulsion, finding love and success there, and also risking his life because of the Inquisition (which in Spain was particularly severe and cruel, and was not suppressed until the early nineteenth century). Spanish history, its empire, its characters and of course its artists have a particular space in the common imagination. However, in the dark of the Run Run Shaw Tower conference hall, at Hong Kong University, I was thinking that a huge part of Spain’s fascination rests in its language, or rather that the wonderful sound of its language has always held a strong captivation for me.
So, it was not curious that Juan Morales’s voice and accent, and his speech about El Greco’s life and work, and then the movie (which was not bad indeed, and mostly set in Spain), created a splendid atmosphere in which I found a sort of hypnotic and at the same time intense relaxation.
By the way, Juan Morales – called Juanjo by the large number of his female fans, who are always present at his speeches (and that alone would be enough to attract me to his conferences) – was once again splendid in his delivery of the topic. His broad knowledge is never a show-off or a self-complaisance, but a passionate tool to entertain the audience and to make scholars reflect. His presentation was superbly organised and thus very compelling and interesting. So, from the wide spectrum of great Spanish painters, El Greco – who was not Spanish actually but came from Crete, as his nickname clearly suggests – emerges as a giant, fitting well with the artistic expressions of the Spanish Renaissance (think about Diego Velázquez, who was almost contemporary to El Greco, or about Francisco Goya, who was the last of the Old Masters and the first of the moderns), and with the astonishing masterpieces in the Prado Museum, the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Arts, etc.
El Greco was born in 1541 as Doménikos Theotokópoulos. Crete was back then part of the Republic of Venice, and thus to Venice he travelled at age 26. He worked in Titian’s workshop, absorbing some elements of the Venetian Renaissance style. In 1570, he moved to Rome where he opened his own workshop.
In 1577, he moved to Toledo where he lived and worked until his death, in 1614.
Juan Morales masterly described El Greco’s life: his youth; his dangerous relationship with the Cardinal Don Fernando Niño de Guevara; his sentimental relationship with a Spanish female companion, Jerónima de Las Cuevas, whom he never married, but who was the mother of his only son, Jorge Manuel; the power of his paintings; the “verticality” of his figures; the strong difference between the upper part of many of his paintings, which represent the supernatural world, and the inferior one or normal life; the basic four colours of El Greco’s visual expression; and the best of his masterpieces (just to quote: The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, View of Toledo, The Disrobing of Christ – the famous El Espolio – etc.). Eventually, Juan Morales revealed elements of El Greco in many modern painters’ works, with a very interesting comparison between his seventeen-century paintings and twentieth century ones (Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon recalls El Greco’s Opening of the Fifth Seal – one of the examples shown). In fact, El Greco is now regarded as a precursor of different cultural movements such as Expressionism and Cubism. I can add also that Mario Sironi’s figures recall El Greco’s dramatic ones – thus also Modernism is in debt to this artist. By the way, Mario Sironi was a great Sardinian painter, 1885–1961, who was not been well studied and is not famous because he was considered involved with fascism by the embedded intelligentsia of the post war (the same intellectuals who were back then fascists too, like Eugenio Scalfari or Dario Fo, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, just to make two easy examples).
Going back to El Greco, he was disdained by his generation of intellectuals and by the immediate generations after his death, because his works show little respect for the principles of the Counter-Reformation and then to those of the early baroque style. He was for centuries the man “who painted horrors in the Escorial” (Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopaedia, 1899).
Théophile Gautier (1811–1872) rediscovered and defended El Greco saying that he was the precursor of the Romantic movement, “in all its craving for the strange and the extreme”, and he was the ideal romantic hero too (“the gifted, the misunderstood, the mad”).
I’m impressed by El Greco’s skies, when there is a sky in one of his paintings. And I have really thought about those dramatic illustrations, trying to give a meaning to them. Yes, there was the Saint Inquisition, so incumbent, so senseless and mortal, a real evil nightmare, which, maybe, influenced El Greco’s sensibility. However, I think that the answer is in his signature. He signed his paintings with his full birth name in Greek letters: Δομήνικος Θεοτοκόπουλος (Doménikos Theotokópoulos), often adding the word Κρής (Krēs, ‘Cretan’). The normal life for him was Toledo, with its green views, but the sky above, the supernatural, is dark and even black, with dramatic lights and powerful clouds. So Toledo was at the same time the Promised Land and the existential trap, the same compulsory trap that is the disembarkation land for every expatriate.